For organizations and CEOs serious about women's leadership, addressing systemic issues that hold women back is the way forward. And no, systematic issues are not always around the work/family narrative and how women need help to rise above that. Women get held back because they don’t have adequate networking skills, don’t amplify their work and don’t work at building work alliances. 

As someone who has interviewed multiple women leaders on women and work issues while I worked at Mint newspaper, some of their thoughts have stayed with me: it’s their take on why they feel women find it difficult to move into leadership roles. 

If companies and CEOs, #ChoosetoChallenge (the theme for International Women’s Day 2021) and coach women to deal with these ‘systematic’ issues, leadership for women may not be a thing of a very distant future.

Empower women managers to ask for more

In a 2013 interview, Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook and author of Lean In said that men find it easy to walk up and ask for that next job, the next opportunity, the next lead role, the next problem to solve. “Some women reach for those opportunities, but many more lean back,” said Sandberg. Even when she approached them to take on roles, she found many saying, “I am still learning in my current job" or “I don’t think I am ready for that", words that Sandberg had never heard from men. 

CEOs and organizations, ready to walk the talk on women's leadership must ask themselves if they are enabling and encouraging women to know that they can have the support they need to ask for that next job, the next opportunity, the next lead role, the next problem to solve.

Forget mentors or reservations, introduce sponsors and support systems

In a 2020 Harappa interview, Punita Lal, independent board member and formerly marketing head of Pepsico South Asia, talked about how she believes much is being said and attempted to encourage women in the workforce but the reality is that the needle has not moved much. Organizations need to accept this reality in order to then really do more. 

“For the young women of today, while I would say go for it, never believe you cannot do anything but first build support systems because culturally the world of work has not adapted to understand that you are breaking out. Till the world adapts to your breaking out, it is not going to be easy for you. I had very few role models and when I became a leader, it almost became a part of my role to help younger women,” said Lal. She is of the opinion young working women must actively work to build these support systems. Organizations and CEOs who want to see more women leaders must encourage and facilitate this. 

Terri Bresenham, former president and chief executive of a unit at GE Healthcare, adds that women need sponsors not reservations to reach top roles. Sponsors are powerful allies within organizations that demand and ensure women managers get to stepping-stone jobs and don’t get relegated to execution-only roles. 

In a 2017 interview, Bresenham said that quotas for women will not propel them or be a sustainable model when it comes to leadership roles and women. It was finding people that support women take that leap from execution roles to leadership roles. “Of course, I start with the premise that there are enough qualified women out there, but they could benefit from sponsorship and opportunity. What can we do to ensure we get more women into the system? Can we be conscious of the biases and make sure we can do things to support and advocate the continual growth of women? I think that’s what we should be doing and not looking at reservations.” 

The questions for CEOs and organizations to ask themselves “Are we doing enough to identify or support these women?” If the answer is yes, you will find that the organization has more women leaders. 

Encourage women to exercise their right to use their voice without fear

In a 2019 interview, Melinda Gates, the co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and author of The Moment To Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World, made some important points in her book about her own struggle with gender equality in the workplace and how she overcame it. One thing that struck out was that Gates had to learn to find her signature voice, a style of communication that is uniquely your own. “Repeatedly, I’ve had to learn that I, too, have the potential, the power, and the right to use my own voice. I had to learn it at Microsoft, I had to learn it at the foundation, I had to learn it in my relationship with Bill. And I don’t doubt that there are ways in which I’m still learning it. My hope is that I can bring other women along this learning journey with me.” 

As a CEO and an organization, are you doing enough to empower women to find a means of self-expression that is uniquely and distinctly theirs or are you asking them always to toe the line? 

If your answer is yes, you are on a journey to empower women managers to become leaders.

Seema Chowdhry is Vice President, Curriculum, Harappa Education. The articles mentioned here were first published in Mint (www.livemint.com)

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